A Place Whose Rules Rearrange Your Own
By Raven Moore (Cote d’Ivoire 2000-02)
Books by Raven, $19.99 (paper); $9.99 (Kindle)
Reviewed by Deidre Swesnik (Mali 1996-98)
“The Ivoirien children who you see me living with on the cover of this book are poor, but poverty is not a permanent condition, nor does it have a recognizable face. Color was and is not often the reason for our mistreatment of one another. The Egyptians, the Moors, the Mongolians, the Romans, the Jews, the British, the Ottomans, the Dutch, the Americans, the Mandinka, the Mayans, and more; the list of conquerors is as diverse as those conquered. Ivoiriens in the Ivory Coast - La Cote d’Ivoire as it is called in West Africa - have it badly, but I’m not here to make you feel sorry for Ivoiriens. Feel sorry for me that it took me so long to figure out why I came here in the first place.”
So begins (well, it’s on page two) Raven Moore’s book about her Peace Corps experience in the Ivory Coast. This paragraph is a great window into what the whole book is about. Some is about race, some is about the conditions in the Ivory Coast, but most is her personal impressions of what is going on and what is happening to her along the way.
Moore does a lot of soul-searching in this book, much of it hilarious. She is “Black” in America but she is usually not seen as “black” in the Ivory Coast. In fact, she is often called “La Blanche,” the white woman, by Ivoiriens. This is a bit of a shock to someone who has come to Africa hoping to find a connection, only to feel like an outsider. (In a funny and ironic twist, even when she meets Ivoiriens who are as light-skinned as she or even lighter, Moore is still referred to as the white woman.)
In some ways, Moore goes through what many of us probably have, thinking we were going to be somewhere familiar or somewhere we viewed as home, only to feel like an outsider. In other ways, her experience is a funny, touching, honest portrayal of race in Africa and in America, and one person’s investigation into what race really means. She investigates race as a construct but also as an identity. She draws connections between Ivoiriens and African Americans, recognizing idioms, expressions, and even sometimes cultural similarities. At other times she sees major differences, and sometimes just settles in and observes.
While we all as Peace Corps Volunteers are part of a cadre of other PCVs, we ultimately have individual experiences and have to figure out a lot of things for ourselves. Moore goes through a few months’ training at the beginning of the book, but soon understands that she has a lot more to learn about the Ivory Coast and her village. Latrines, bucket baths, and no electricity may be the biggest shocks to the system upon arrival, but they soon pale in comparison to understanding a whole new culture and figuring out her role in it.
Moore is supposed to be a health volunteer educating her community about AIDS. How do you talk such an intimate topic when you barely speak the language? Not to mention the fact that you are supposed to talk about sex and how to put on a condom with people you are just meeting? Who could be expected to do that?
Moore does a great job of telling her story in chronological order and not giving away ahead of time some of the crazy things that happen to her, like encounters with snakes and her creepy assigned supervisor. We walk with Moore through her experience, putting together the pieces of the puzzle as they come. We start to see the whole picture slowly but holes remain - like when she doesn’t find out until late in her service that there was actually another volunteer there before she was and the strange things that volunteer supposedly did. She even finds out a major component of how her village politics work on her last day in town.
It seems to me that the two years of Peace Corps are like growing up. You start out stumbling around and talking like a baby. By month six, you are like a snobby adolescent who thinks she knows everything, feels like no one understands her, and is SO ready to go home. By the first year, you are like a twenty-something - slightly cocky but productive and feeling like you have it figured out but really want to make a difference. By the end of two years, you grow up and realize how little you actually knew all along.
Moore takes us through her personal journey and seems to think she has it all figured out by the end of the book. Maybe it’s that she has come to terms with the fact that there are things she doesn’t understand and probably never will. And maybe that’s ok too. She built some wonderful relationships during her service, but unfortunately many of them are drawn into question by the end for one reason or another.
Wondering what the title “Padre” is all, especially since she is in a French-speaking country? Well, in the book it’s actually “Pahdre” and it’s one of the many names she’s given. You’ll have to read the book - and think really hard - to find out what it means.
Personal aside: This book was especially interesting for me to read because Ms. Moore and I are close in age and served in West Africa around the same time. I am very curious to know how things may or may not be different now. Both Ivory Coast and Mali have gone through significant internal strife since we served, not to mention cell phones.
Deidre Swesnik laughed for a lot of her two years in Peace Corps Mali and still does so uproariously with her RPCV friends at home in Washington, DC. DeeDee is the Director of Public Policy and Communications at the National Fair Housing Alliance, loves to edit and read, and is terrified of writing anything longer than two pages.